She's Not Crazy, She's Gaslit: Unpacking Merriam-Webster's Word of the Year

Simply understanding what the term "gaslighting" means and being able to understand when it may be happening to you is a great starting point. 

Unhappy couple
Delmaine Donson/

As a communications professional, I tend to obsess over words — which ones to use, avoid, or ways to rephrase them to spin the message. I genuinely look forward to hearing about which chosen term will get the spotlight as Merriam-Webster's Word of the Year, as it often speaks to the year we've had from a political, cultural, and historical standpoint.

"Vaccine" was unsurprisingly the word chosen in 2021. The term "Gaslighting," a common form of emotional abuse, was officially named Merriam-Webster's Word of the Year in 2022.

By definition, gaslighting is a form of psychological manipulation that causes victims to question the validity of their own thoughts or perception of reality. The goal of gaslighting is to make the victim doubt themselves, later questioning their own sanity. This typically leads to confusion, loss of confidence, and self-esteem. Gaslighting can take many forms, including denying that certain events occurred, manipulating physical evidence to support the denials, and constantly shifting explanations or blame to deflect attention away from the manipulator.

The term dates back to 1944 when a black and white film entitled "Gaslight" starring Ingrid Bergman hit the silver screen. Based on what was originally a British play, the storyline depicts a deceitful husband who manages to coerce his wife into thinking she's hallucinating and imagining things, ultimately driving her insane.

One recent PSA plastered across hundreds of digital billboards in the U.S. helps visualize gaslighting in action. The image features a husband and wife sitting across the dinner table (image from Neon, An IPG Health Company). While the man is pictured encroaching on the woman's space, she appears to be shrinking as the text "No one should make you feel small" appears on the screen. The chilling image depicting the repercussions of gaslighting was created on behalf of the Safe in Harm's Way Foundation and to raise awareness of domestic violence over the holidays.

Portraying the emotional scars from this type of abuse is far more complex compared to physical abuse, as it can sometimes be difficult for victims themselves to detect. Maybe they don't have to worry about covering up a black eye, but deep down, they resemble a fraction of who they once were. To speak to these victims, the imagery needed to deviate from stereotypical portrayals of abuse."We didn't want it to feel as though we were telling someone they were being abused," says Caroline Hammond, CEO of Safe in Harm's Way. "We wanted them to identify with what they were seeing and then be able to make that connection and move towards being able to unpack what they're experiencing.

Why Gaslighting Is Taking the Spotlight

The word "gaslighting" captured a fair share of news headlines in 2022. Not only was it the one-year anniversary of the devastating Gabby Petito case, last year marked the 50th anniversary of the 1972 Watergate scandal, perhaps one of the most well-known incidents of gaslighting in U.S. history. Recently highlighted in the new Starz Network series "Gaslit," we learn the story of Martha Mitchell, the wife of former U.S. attorney general John Mitchell who was labeled as 'hysterical' and 'crazy' after attempting to warn the media about Nixon's skulduggery.

The trial of Johnny Depp and Amber Heard initiated an uptick in gaslighting as a form of emotional abuse toward women. While the threat of defamation has remained a concern for victims long before this case, what's disturbing is the newly developed trend of perpetrators referring to victims as 'Amber' or 'Ms. Heard' whenever they get upset or call attention to the inflicted abuse.

How Can Female Communicators Avoid Being Gaslit?

While both men and women are fully capable of perpetrating this type of emotional abuse, women have historically faced an uphill battle of being labeled as crazy or overly emotional, often landing them the role of the gaslit victim. It's been this way since at least the 18th and 19th centuries when 'female hysteria' was the most common diagnosis for various medical issues reported by women.

Today, women are gradually being recognized as more effective communicators, stepping into leadership roles in the White House, the boardroom, and beyond, but their stories are still frequently dismissed. Even from a medical perspective, data still shows that women are commonly the victims of medical gaslighting.

So how can it be stopped? If I'm a female business owner working with male clients on a regular basis, how can I avoid getting caught in the gaslight? It's not like there's a vaccine for warding off narcissists, but simply understanding what the term "gaslighting" means and being able to understand when it may be happening to you is a place to start.

Taking ownership of your story is another strategy. Claiming this ownership requires not only knowing, but trusting ourselves and what we know to be true. "We don't lose our voices, we stop talking," says domestic violence survivor Rebeccah Silence in her book "Coming Back to Life." Silence specializes in trauma recovery and argues that while anyone can become hypnotized by victim thinking, or feel "frozen in defeat" from time to time, we always have the capability to reclaim our power and use our voice.

This circles back to the importance of owning and controlling your own story. As a publicist who trains clients to do this, the idea strikes a chord with me. If you step into a victim mindset, you're allowing yourself to be gaslit by someone who claims to know your story better than you do. We've seen this happen to women time and time again, but it doesn't have to be this way. Women who own their story don't have to be written off like Martha Mitchell or labeled as a 'Ms. Heard' for speaking up.

If you don't own your narrative, someone else will own it. During media training, I stress to my clients that they are the experts. Full stop. Nobody knows their story better than they do. When a reporter asks an unexpected or provocative question, it can throw you off in the middle of an interview, and nerves kick in, oftentimes leading to self-doubt. In these situations, I suggest that they remain calm and stick to their top three talking points we have identified in advance. These talking points are the top three issues you want to get across to your audience. Be clear on what these points are. Have them in your back pocket at all times. This will help you own your story and remain consistent, leaving little room for anyone to question your authority or manipulate the conversation at hand.

Acknowledging the word gaslighting as the Word of the Year doesn't necessarily mean that this type of abuse won't happen in the future, but it could keep history from repeating itself. That said, as we step into 2023, owning your own narrative is more important than ever. And with much confidence in ourselves as effective communicators, perhaps we can end the cycle.

The Newsweek Expert Forum is an invitation-only network of influential leaders, experts, executives, and entrepreneurs who share their insights with our audience.
What's this?
Content labeled as the Expert Forum is produced and managed by Newsweek Expert Forum, a fee based, invitation only membership community. The opinions expressed in this content do not necessarily reflect the opinion of Newsweek or the Newsweek Expert Forum.